Statue at Wellesley Potentially Triggering for Sexual Assault Survivors on Campus
Good art should be thought provoking. What it shouldn't be is triggering. Students at Wellesley University are protesting a sculpture of a life-like grown man in his underwear who appears to be sleep walking alongside a high-traffic street on campus. Because the statue looks so real, some students say that they feel unsafe, seeing what appears to be a nearly naked man lingering near the heart of campus. The issue is particularly high stakes for sexual assault survivors. An online petition to have the statue removed has been started on Change.org and has already received over 300 signatures.
The installation, titled Sleepwalker, was created by New York artist Tony Matelli, and was placed at Wellesley by the campus's Davis museum as part of a larger exhibit, most of which is housed within the museum. In response to student reaction, Davis director Lisa Fischman explained:
We placed the Sleepwalker on the roadside just beyond the Davis to connect the exhibition -- within the museum -- to the campus world beyond. I love the idea of art escaping the museum and muddling the line between what we expect to be inside (art) and what we expect to be outside (life).
It's honestly a really cool idea, especially since, as the Davis's website points out, the man is "sleepwalking" as though he's just wandered away from the museum. But it's also an idea that could have easily been executed using a fully clothed statue. Sure, the sight of a grown man wandering around in the snow in his underwear is bound to make people stop and stare, but obviously that's not the only reaction some students are having. Giving the poor guy some pajamas really wouldn't have been so hard and could have achieved the same point, without the potentially triggering shock value.
Zoe Magid, the student who started the petition to remove the statue, expressed frustration that so far the museum seems more pleased to have elicited reactions from the student body — both positive and negative — than concerned over the criticisms students have expressed. Fischman's response to the backlash concluded, "Art provokes dialogue, and discourse is the core of education. In that spirit, I am enormously glad to have your response." After receiving it Magid said, "We were really disappointed that she seemed to articulate that she was glad it was starting discussion, but didn’t respond to the fact that it’s making students on campus feel unsafe, which is not appropriate."
Students have a right to feel safe on campus, full stop, no exceptions. If the Davis museum or the artist are not willing to modify the exhibit in such a way that it is no longer potentially triggering or frightening to assault survivors on campus, then the installation should either be removed or placed in an indoor space. Because as cool as it is for art to be out in the world, it is not at all cool for it to be a source of pain for students in the heart of the campus they call home.